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A major capital project that may take two decades to complete is now in the conceptual stage in DeBary.

A sewage system, whose full cost has not yet been determined, is to be built to connect many, if not most, of the homes and businesses that now rely on septic tanks for waste disposal. 

Property owners affected by the conversion may have to pay large sums to link up with the system, unless the city can secure outside funding. 

The big-ticket effort to save Gemini Springs from an environmental disaster has the force of law behind it, civic leaders say.

“There’s no other option. This is a state mandate,” DeBary City Manager Carmen Rosamonda said.

The project area is mostly south of Highbanks Road, where, officials say, septic tanks are overloading the groundwater with nitrogen.

“We are working on a strategy to connect 2,300 homes,” Rosamonda said.

DeBary is not alone — many West Volusia cities will ultimately have to contend with improving or getting rid of septic tanks that lie within focus areas near major springs.

West Volusia has three designated “Outstanding Florida Springs” — Blue, Gemini, and DeLeon. 

DeLeon Springs is currently planning for infrastructure improvements that will connect sewer lines around DeLand to their business corridor. 

Ultimately, by 2038, every septic system around a designated spring, in a priority focus area or not, will need to phase out older, traditional septic systems and either replace them with newer, more expensive enhanced aerobic systems, or hook up to a sewage-treatment plant.

 — Eli Witek

Orders from the state

The Florida Department of Environment Protection is ordering the city and the county to reduce the nitrogen load finding its way into the springs in the coming years. The state agency says some 20,496 pounds of nitrogen are now going into the springs from septic tanks and fertilizer each year, and the FDEP is calling for an annual reduction of at least 14,270 pounds.

Nitrogen, biologists warn, promotes the growth and spread of algae and aquatic plants that deprive the water of oxygen and diminish water quality. 

DeBary already has in place an ordinance restricting the use of fertilizer, and thus authorities are demanding something be done about the septic tanks believed to be affecting Gemini Springs.

Gemini Springs has been polluted for several years. Because of high levels of disease-causing bacteria, swimming has not been allowed in the springs since 1996.

TURFGRASS FERTILIZER IS THE TOP SOURCE — This map shows the area affected by the Gemini Springs Basin Management Action Plan. Most of it is Seminole County, but Gemini Springs is in Volusia County, and the Priority Focus Area, where changes will be required first, is in DeBary. The PFA is shown with an orange border.

The FDEP blames septic tanks for adding a great deal of nitrogen to the springs, and it is calling for the reduction of at least 14,270 pounds of nitrogen by 2038.

“We realize what an incredible task this is,” Volusia County Utilities Director Mike Ulrich said.

Two options for homeowners

The county is heavily involved in the septic-to-sewer conversion, because the county owns and operates the water and wastewater systems inside DeBary”s city limits.

“This is a state mandate. You, the city and the county are on the same side, … working together as a whole,” Ulrich told DeBaryites at a Feb. 24 public-information meeting.

Ulrich said DeBary homeowners face two options:

One is to replace a conventional septic tank with an advanced system that reduces nitrogen going into the ground. The installation prices of these aerobic-treatment systems typically range between $12,500 and $17,500. There are recurring expenses including electricity to operate a pump and the costs of inspections.

The other option, Rosamonda said, is to “move to a central sewer system.”

“Central systems work,” Ulrich said.

But the cost of such projects is not cheap. Information compiled by the county notes the cost of building and connecting users to a sewer system would be $30,000-$40,000 per home. Is it possible for DeBary and Volusia County to obtain grants from higher levels of government to lower that cost for individual homeowners?

“What we don’t know is the state funding amount,” Ulrich said.

Ulrich added the final amount charged to each homeowner may range between $5,000 and $7,000, but those numbers could be higher. 

The individual utility customer’s share of the sewer system’s cost would become a loan — and a lien — whose payment could be stretched out over several years, with interest charged. The annual amount due would appear as a special assessment on property-tax bills. 

Rosamonda hopes for better.

“We would prefer that the state pay for all of it, as they should,” he said, noting the demand is coming from Tallahassee.

“It’s our intention to get the State of Florida to pay as much as possible,” Rosamonda added. “We’ll shoot for 100 percent and see where we’re going.”

Rosamonda said he has talked with legislators about DeBary’s need for help higher up in complying with the FDEP’s order.

NITROGEN POLLUTION — This pie chart shows the biggest culprit in nitrogen pollution is actually fertilizer used on lawns (called “urban turfgrass” on the cart.) DeBary has an ordinance iun place to regulate fertilizer use, so the focus now is on septic tanks, the second-largest contributor of nitrogen in Gemini Springs, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. Controlling fertilizer use is challenging for authorities, since nitrogen-rich fertilizer is freely available for consumers to purchase, and cities don’t have staff to police its use.

The comparison of the costs of the two choices prompted one DeBaryite to make a decision.

“Basically, I think a central sewer system is the way to go,” James Morton concluded, after attending the public meeting.

There are many factors to consider in developing such a project. Although there are many questions about the number of homes, the distance from septic tanks to the springs, the sizes of lots and the density of the neighborhoods, the terrain and the types of soil remain. Rosamonda noted the time for the first steps is running out.

“We are required to file a plan by June 30, 2021,” he said.

So far, the system has yet to be designed.

“It may take one or two years to do the engineering,” Rosamonda added.

The affected zone is known as the Priority Focus Area, the zone believed to be the location of the greatest share of nitrogen pollution ending up in Gemini Springs.

The Priority Focus Area covers several neighborhoods in DeBary, including Plantation Estates, Lake Maria Estates, DeBary Plantation, Surrey Run, St. Johns River Estates, Orlandia Heights and Summerhaven.

The PFA is but one part of the springshed for Gemini Springs. The springshed is a sort of basin, in which all of the water falling from the heavens and all of the impurities landing on and percolating into the ground may ultimately, over time, go into the springs. 

As surprising as it may seem, a great part of the springshed for Gemini Springs lies within Seminole County.

— Al Everson

Ulrich said, however, actual construction of the system may begin in 2023. Ulrich said once sewer service becomes available, homeowners will be required to connect to it.

Another DeBaryite who attended the meeting commented on the unanswered questions.

“They can’t tell you the scope, the cost and the schedule,” Leo Monahan said.

Ulrich said construction of the system will probably be in phases, beginning with the homes closest to the springs and spreading outward.

Ulrich could not say what effects the DeBary sewage system, when completed, may have upon the utility customers as a whole. In other words, will the non-DeBary ratepayers be tapped to pay part of the capital cost?

“A very good question,” Ulrich wrote in an email response to an inquiry from The Beacon. “Most would agree that current rate-payers should not bear the costs for construction of new infrastructure. On the other hand, utilities must also practice environment stewardship for the benefit of the entire community the utility serves. So from a practical standpoint, one can expect some investment by the utility based on the antic revenue derived from new customers.”

Nevertheless, city leaders say they will comply with the order from higher up.

“This is not a project that we have a choice in. We have to move forward,” Mayor Karen Chasez said.

Once a sewer system is finished and operating, however, Volusia County Utilities Director  Mike Ulrich could not guarantee Gemini Springs will once again be a safe place to cool off on a hot day. 

Advanced septic tanks and/or a central sewer, he wrote, “will significantly reduce nitrate pollutants and restore environmental water quality, [but] it’s difficult to say whether these sole improvements will entirely reduce the bacteria necessary to promote public swimming.”

 — Al Everson

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